Judge Robert Russell Jr. founded the first veterans court in Buffalo, New York around 2008. He was dealing with a Vietnam Veteran with mental health problems who was not participating in his court ordered counseling. Russell was struggling with how to manage this defendant. Heavier punishment would not solve the problem, but sending a message that defying a court order was okay was not an option, either. Russell asked two other Vietnam Veterans to take the defendant into the hallway outside the court and talk with him. When he came back in, Russell noticed the defendant was standing up straight, looked him in the eye, and told him, “Judge, I’m going to try harder.”
What Are Veterans Courts?
Many jurisdictions are now starting veterans courts, which often spring from other specialty court programs – like drug court or family court. This makes sense, because veterans who are in the criminal justice system face a multitude of problems that are interrelated: mental illnesses, unemployment, broken relationships between spouses and children, child support problems, homelessness. The veterans courts gather teams of service providers together after the veteran is placed on probation and combine their efforts to help the veteran complete rehabilitation. The programs include mentorship. Each participant is assigned a mentor.
In Dedham, Massachusetts, Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan every week sees a young Marine who spent seven months in Iraq. After completing his tour, he returned home suffering from nightmares and anxiety attacks. He started abusing drugs, then finally broke into a convenience store in Spring 2012. He took several packs of cigarettes and candy bars, leaving a $5 bill on the counter. Every week Judge Sullivan talks, on the record, with the veteran asking how he is doing in counseling, what is that status of job training, how well he is doing in school. The court also asks for opinions from the VA service providers who are part of the veterans court team.
The Role of VA Compensation Benefits in Veterans Courts
VA compensation benefits can play a very significant role in veterans courts. Not only does VA compensation help ease financial pressures – especially when child support is involved – but it can also help a veteran secure mental health treatment more quickly.
Under the Veterans Health Administration, veterans are assigned to priority groups, and veterans with a high disability rating for service connected disabilities have the highest priority and the financial responsibility for paying for health care is a function of disability compensation. For example, when a veteran receives compensation for PTSD, then that veteran is eligible to receive free mental health counseling from the VA. This can be an essential component to successful completion of a veterans court program.
The veterans disability advocate at Veterans Help Group are effective advocates for securing compensation benefits that help veterans get back on their feet in many respects – financially and in access to medical care. For a free consultation, please call (855) 855-8992.
For a complete report on veterans courts, see the article in the Army Times, January 6, 2014, edition.
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